Leading Article: Moral obligations to Mr Rushdie

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'I AM an innocent man, a free citizen in a free country, being attacked by a terrorist state.' These words, spoken on television yesterday by Salman Rushdie, the Indian- born British writer who has lived for four years under the threat of murder by Islamic fundamentalists, should help to return public attention to the essential issues surrounding his case. The fatwa of 14 February 1989, by which the mullahs of Tehran ordered Muslims to go out and kill Mr Rushdie, was an appalling act worthy of contempt by all civilised people. The Government's lukewarm response to his plight over the following four years has been deplorable. Its belated awakening in recent weeks to Britain's moral obligations to Mr Rushdie is puzzling but welcome. More welcome still, however, will be an out-and-out change in government policy over the affair.

The handling of his case has been influenced throughout by other considerations. One was the fear that strong words on Mr Rushdie's behalf might damage attempts to restore Britain's battered diplomatic relations with Iran. Another was concern about Western hostages in the Middle East and a wish to do nothing that would harm them. A third was the desire not to give further unnecessary publicity to militant Muslims such as Dr Kalim Siddiqui, who had used the Rushdie affair to stir up religious trouble in Britain.

While all these matters deserved consideration, they should have been firmly treated as subordinate to the moral imperative; that everything should be done to get the fatwa lifted. Whether one felt kindly to Mr Rushdie or his writings was irrelevant. He admits that he has made some political errors, especially when he tried to convince the Iranians to call off their assassins by pretending, in one of his darkest moments, that he had become an observant Muslim. That is now behind him.

The Government is giving Mr Rushdie's case a good deal more prominence; earlier this month he was allowed to meet Douglas Hogg, a junior Foreign Office minister. Now it is time to do more. Mr Rushdie said yesterday that he detects 'a gradual acceleration of international interest' in his case. Other European countries, notably France and Germany, have come out in his support. Canada has withheld a dollars 1bn trade credit from Iran in protest at the country's failure to call off its fatwa. Norway has blocked a lucrative oil deal. Most importantly, the Clinton administration appears ready to link his case to the broader relations between the United States and Iran.

With such promising signs abroad there is much that the Government could do. Pressing for concerted action inside the European Community, or the Group of Seven industrial nations, is one thing; going to the International Court of Justice is another. While preliminary work is being done by officials on those matters, however, John Major could make an important gesture. Responding to Mr Rushdie's public request, he could invite him for a chat at No 10 and pose for photographers with him on the steps outside. He should declare that however offensive his book may be to Muslims, Britain will not see Mr Rushdie murdered by assassins sent from abroad - and that until the fatwa is lifted, Iran can expect no warmer relations with Britain or its allies.